Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding

Saturday, July 08, 2006


A while back, I saw this sort of meme thing on Snail's Tales: What's the Oldest Book You Own? While a couple of my library's components exceed it slightly in age, the coolest old book I own has to be my 1870 copy of Creative and Sexual Science (with a subtitle which would exceed my bandwidth were I to transcribe it) by Professor O.S. Fowler. It's not clear where the good professor taught, but his declared areas of expertise were physiology and phrenology. He used his understanding of these fields, and of the Bible, to describe all aspects of human sexuality in this 1,050 page volume. The phrase “creative science” seemed confusing and pejorative to me. Today, I think we'd replace it with “the life sciences” or “natural sciences.” Fowler saw his science as the study of creation, and the “creative laws” that governed it. He explains, “God instituted them to be obeyed not trampled on; learned not ignored.”

In Part I-Gender, Fowler draws on his knowledge of phrenology to describe in detail the various physical and mental qualities that make an admirable man or woman, and describes how various human attributes can be determined phrenologically. No Victorian book on this topic would be complete without a rundown of the various human races and their peculiarities, and Fowler does not disappoint. He discusses hybridization of crops and livestock, stating that they combine the positive masculine attributes with the best maternal ones, but then goes on to say:
"Human and animal hybrids are denounced most terribly in the Bible; obviously because the mixing up of man with beast, or one beast species with another, deteriorates. Universal amalgamation would be disastrous."
He uses this as a basis to condemn interracial marriage: “How wicked thus to humble Caucasian pride of character with African inferiority of position!...Mixing races, forbidden by Nature, should not be perpetrated by man. Caucasian commerce with negresses is inherently vulgar, as are white and black marriages.” Much of the Part I, indeed much of the whole book has a tone of exhortation, urging the reader to live as God commands, as described by Fowler.

Part II-Love is probably the dreariest section. Fowler devotes most of it to waxing poetic about the wonders of love, always with stern Christian admonitions. Much of it sounds disturbingly familiar to contemporary ears: “Marriage is a divine, not Human, Institution. In and by creating it, God demands its exercise.”

Fowler continues his format with headings describing the progression of love: Selection, Courtship, Married Life, and Generation. These are fascinating sociological glimpses into Reconstruction Era American life and social expectations.

Part VII-Maternity is my favorite. It includes the beautiful old illustration of the female reproductive system pictured at left. Note the absence of a clitoris. In this section, Fowler tells expectant mothers what is expected of them, and how best to ensure their offspring will be healthy and virtuous. He presents a long series of fascinating anecdotes describing the many dangers to the unborn fetus. Here is a selection:
“A woman, some months before the birth of her child, longed for strawberries, which she could not obtain. Fearing that this might mark her child, and having heard that it would be marked where she then touched herself, she touched her hip. Before the child was born she predicted that it would have a mark resembling a strawberry, and be found on its hip, all of which proved to be true...An acquaintance, while riding out, saw some strawberries spilled by the side of the road, which she wanted very much; but her sister, who was driving, only laughed at her entreaties to stop, and apprehensions that her child might be marked, and drove on. The child was marked on the back of its neck, with a cluster of red spots, in shape resembling spilled strawberries...Eliza Chickering has an extra thumb, both together resembling a lobster's claw. Its joint and muscles cause it to work inwardly, the two closely resembling a lobster's claw [Fowler's language]; and during her youth it was bright red, like a boiled lobster. Her mother says she bought a large, fine lobster while enciente, which was stolen. This disappointed her extremely; and this lobster's claw on her daughter's hand was the consequence...W.H. Brown, who has a mark on one of his legs resembling a mouse, says that his mother, while carrying him, was in a room in which a mouse was confined, which they were trying to kill, and which, jumping up under her clothes, frightened her terribly...A female acquaintance rode by a tree full of ripe, wild plums, which she craved, but could not obtain. Her child, born some months after, had a fleshy appendage resembling a wild plum, hanging from his thumb by a stem of flesh...A pregnant Michigan mother longed for butter, which could not be obtained, because it was winter, and there were more emigrants than eatables. Her child was born with a running sore on its neck, which yielded to no remedies, till, remembering her disappointed longing, she anointed it with butter, which soon cured it...An amputated thumb, now preserved in spirit, was found among the placenta, separated from its stump before birth, by its mother seeing her husband's thumb cut off with an axe, which excited her sympathy to the highest pitch...Mrs. Lee, of London, Ont., saw Burly executed from her window; who, in swinging off, broke the rope, and fell with his face all black and blue from being choked. This horrid sight caused her to feel awfully; and her son, born three months afterwards, whenever anything occurs to excite his fears, becomes black and blue in the face, an instance of which the Author witnessed..In Waterbury, Vt., there lived a man who always appeared as if intoxicated; obviously caused by his mother's being terribly frightened by seeing a drunkard while carrying him. His intellect was good...In Woodstock, Vt., a pregnant mother visited a menagerie, and became deeply interested in its animals. Some five months afterwards she gave birth to a monster, some parts of which resembled one wild beast, and other parts other animals; which soon died..A child in Boston bears so striking a resemblance to a monkey, as to be observed by all. Its mother visited a menagerie while pregnant with it, when a monkey jumped on her shoulders...James Copeland is below par in intellect, under guardianship, quite inferior to both parents intellectually, good-natured, quite mechanical, very fond of whittling, understands how to do most kinds of work, is very particular to have everything in proportion and order, can count money but poorly, does not put the cash value on any kind of property, though he distinguishes between good and poor cattle, and looks behind him while eating, probably fifty times each meal. His parentage, on both sides, is good; and his inferiority and looking behind him when eating were caused by his mother's fear lest she should be surprised by an idiot living near, who often tried to frighten her. At table she usually sat with her back towards the door, and often turned around, while eating, to see if he was coming. She apprehended her son's fate beforehand...Mrs. K., while pregnant, longed for gin, which could not be got; and her child cried incessantly for six weeks, till gin was given it, which it eagerly clutched and drank with ravenous greediness, stopped crying, and became healthy.”

Fowler explains how these defects were caused by animal magnetism, how magnetism from a monkey can be transferred through the placenta if a woman becomes overly emotional. The best way to guard against such problems is for pregnant women to “keep themselves in a resistant, self-fortified state.” It is only the weak and excitable who are prone to magnetization.

The final sections of the book cover child rearing, family life, the biological aspects of reproduction, and various sexual deviations and inadequacies, their causes and cures, all practically without the benefit of any useful information to the modern reader. It's sometimes surprising how familiar Fowler's fundamentalist Christian viewpoint sounds, but more often the fact that surprises is that a book only 136 years old should be as completely outdated with respect to its chosen topics, which is what makes it so interesting as a historical and sociological text.
All illustrations from CREATIVE AND SEXUAL SCIENCE by Prof. O. S. Fowler

UPDATE: It seems another blogger owns a copy of this book, and used it as the basis for a very clever site.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Some of those old books are so weird but interesting as social documents. Seems as though the expectant mother was blamed for every possible thing that could be wrong with her child - and that defects were associated with her "desire" for something (evidence of her weakness like Eve and the apple?).

I guess my most interesting "old" books are a set of volumes on equine veterinary medicine (there are about 12 in the set). They were published some time around 1900. They have several of those beautiful colored anatomy flip plates typical of medical books of the time. When I get back home from this trip, maybe I'll try to photograph a few of the plates and post them to my blog.

5:10 PM  
Blogger Carel Brest van Kempen said...

Yes, I only transcribed about a third of those anecdotes, but your observation describes the whole lot. This book is full of examples of a world where options and choices belonged only to white men. I look forward to seeing those plates of horse anatomy.

9:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Now I have to start digging through my library to find out which one is the oldest. But I will.

10:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fascinating. I wonder whether it was a 'best seller' in its time.

3:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My dad's cousin, a doctor, has some really old US medical books, and it's a wonder that anyone survived their recommended medical care.

10:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I accidentally found this post when trolling for information on sex on the internet. I think your interest in such a weird book is suspect. signed, Puffy Grubman.

10:21 AM  
Blogger Carel Brest van Kempen said...

Coturnix: It will be interesting to see what you come up with, once the smoke from Tesla's birthday clears.
Roger: That's a great question, for which I have no answers. There is no hint inside as to who published it. Today, that would suggest a very small print run, but in 1870 that may not have been the case.
Beth: Ha! No kidding! None of them survived, ultimately. You're dad's cousin wasn't the guy I referred to in my title, was he?
Doug: Hardy-har-har.

1:10 PM  
Blogger Carel Brest van Kempen said...

Update: I just looked it up on Amazon, and there are four copies being offered by various dealers, ranging in price from $19 to $40, so it's evidently not a terribly rare book.

1:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I always learn something new(about many different things)when I visit your site. Thank you for the constant surprise you offer!!!!!!!!!

Hope all is well with you

12:07 PM  
Blogger Carel Brest van Kempen said...

Thanks, Vikki...not that much of what you learn here is very valuable. All's well here. Hope the same for you and John.

3:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My response is coming out tomorrow at 10am EDT....

3:16 PM  

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